Parenting advice: Help for raising children of all ages

Jun 23, 2011

Family Almanac columnist Marguerite Kelly discussed the ups and downs of parenting, and tips for helping children through challenging times.

Sorry I missed last week--a death in the family.  But let's answer a lot of questions today.


My 7-year-old son is always competing with his twin brother, nagging him and sometimes undermining him. What should I say to remedy this situation in a positive way?

Children -- especially boys -- scramble like puppies but they shouldn't be allowed to be mean, and when they are (and sooner or later, they always are), they should always be required to apologize and give a hug and if it happens more than once a day,  they should be given some chore to "use up all that extra energy" or a little time in his room, "because it looks like you're tired and need some time alone."

I am at a loss about whether I should speak out -- a family member seems to be doing everything possible to make him/herself as unattractive as possible. Gaining LOTS of weight, not washing hair, not shaving, wearing ill-fitting clothes (lots of plumber butt, if you get my drift [no offense to plumbers...]), acting very surly. This person will be 22 soon, not working, not in school. Family seems oblivious; I don't see them that often, don't want to because 'self-image' issues, but hate to see him/her going on this path. Help?! Pls?!

Sometimes this kind of self-loathing, if that's the right word, is a sign of a trauma, such as sex abuse, but probably at 21, it's a sign of another kind of trauma:  the 20s.  This decade is often the toughest one of all, because all of a sudden, the child is a grown-up and he realizes that he doesn't know much -- like what to do with his life, where to live, if he should move in with his girlfriend, if he should  marry her, if he doesn't marry her,  should she get an abortion -- little things like that.  It makes some young people freeze.  To help him get off the dime, you might hire him to do some small jobs for you -- for pay -- or take him out for breakfast or lunch.  He needs someone to show some faith in him, surly though he may be.  It might help.

My smart, affectionate, charming 7-year-old (almost 8) boy has trouble dealing with some situations, and we are running out of ideas how to help him. Sometimes, when he encounters a situation that does not make him happy (e.g., is told no, another child annoys him, he perceives a result to be unfair, etc.) he will lash out in different ways (e.g., cry, hit, melt down, get very angry etc.). We want him to respond in a more acceptable and healthy manner but don't know how to help him. As another data point, he can focus and stay on task very well, and does well academically. Do you have any suggestions or tips?

His age may explain his behavior better than anything else.  Seven-year-olds -- give or take six months in either directions -- get the same dose of hormones that they'll get when they're around 13, though weaker, and then they act like 13-year-olds (only less so).  As in -- "Nobody loves me.  Nobody's ever loved me." "That's not fair" because few things are fair at 7.  This is a good time to have a nice long talk about sex -- how it works, how hormones work, and how much better he'll feel next year.  And how much better you'll feel.

My about-to-be-3-year-old son has entered a phase where we need to coax, cajole, distract or bribe him to get anything done apart from playing. Whether it is taking a bath, having a meal or drinking milk, he just does not want to do it. It is getting quite difficult for my husband and me to get out the door in the mornings, since all he wants to do is play. Any ideas on how we go through this without losing our minds? We have tried timeouts, distractiong, talking to him, etc. -- but it works only for the day. The next morning he is back to square one. Thanks!

A child enjoys attention, and he'll behave in any way that gets him the most attention, even if it's negative attention.  Try ignoring the lad and also having a sitter on standby -- expensive though it is -- to be on call and come in to care for him if he isn't ready to leave when you are.  And tell the sitter to ignore him pretty much -- no TV, no games with him -- and basically to be as boring as she possibly can.  With a few corrections like this, and a serious limit on your negative attention and an increase on your positive attention, and you should see a nice improvement in his behavior.

Any tips to help prepare for my child starting preschool in the fall? She currently is at home with the nanny (has never been dropped off anywhere alone) and has a a little brother. She will just turn 3 at the end fo September.

Playdates, playdates, playdates -- preferably with a few kids who will be attending the new preschool.  Just baldly ask the preschool director for the list of names and phone numbers of the kids in her group, then call a few parents who live near you and invite them over so your child and theirs can meet each other.  School won't seem so formidable in the fall, especially if you given your daughter a tour of the preschool and shown her where heer room will be, were the bathroom is located and what her cubby looks like.

My 6-year-old son is not overweight, but he is close to it, according to BMI charts. He is active and eats a healthy diet, but still has a "baby belly" like he did as a toddler. He plays soccer, swims, takes karate, and plays outside nearly every day. We hike on the weekends and go for family walks in the evenings. He eats fruits and vegetables and limited sugar and junk food. He never drinks soda or sweetened drinks. His doctor has no advice other than to continue to feed him a healthy diet and to keep him active. I recently lost more than 100 pounds and am fearful of my son becoming overweight because diabetes runs in my family. I don't want to take away every food treat and think he should be able to enjoy a cupcake or ice cream cone every once in a while, but I also don't want him to be obese, and I am afraid this is something he will have to fight all his life. How do I teach him to eat properly and take care of himself without being obsessive about his weight?

Children grow two ways -- up and out -- but they don't grow both ways at the same time.  Just keep watching him carefully, feeding him healthfully and letting him get a lot of exercise.  It sounds like you're doing a great job, but try not to obsess about weight or he'll pick up on that and be obsessive, too.

Our almost 4-year-old was out of diapers by 3 or so, without much drama. However in the last few weeks, she has started having accidents again, sometimes two or three a day. Never at daycare, only at home. We've tried a number of strategies -- offering rewards for a certain number of days without an accident, tracking on the calendar with stars, sending her to her room after an accident, threatening to put her back in diapers, using a timer and putting her on the toilet every 45 minutes - but nothing seems to solve the issue. We had her checked for UTI. It almost seems like some combination of not wanting to stop what she's doing and an attention-getting mechanism. Any advice?

For some reason, most doctors don't consider a physical cause for potty accidents, but that is often the case.  Step back and analyze her diet.   Did it change around that time?  Children (and adults) can develop an allergy which can cause either constipation or diarrhea, if the mast cells in the gut are sensitized, and they can also have trouble processing gluten, which is in wheat, oats, barley and a few other foods, and they can have trouble with dairy products too, if they're not making enough lactase -- an enzyme -- to process lactose -- which is milk sugar.  Cut out lactose first for about a week, then see if there's a difference.  If so, buy lactose-free milk.  Then try a gluten-free diet.  Then an elimination diet to try to figure out a possible allergy.  And by all means read, "What's Eating Your Child?" by local nutritionist Kelly Dorfman.  It's one of the best books on diet I've ever seen and a seminal one.  Diets can probably cause more problems than anything else -- but pediatricians have very little med school training in either allergies or nutrition.

I love your column and have read it for as long as I can remember. Wish it appeared more frequently! My 4- and 6-year-old boys are very well-behaved at preschool/elementary school, but they are not good listeners at home. They whine, try to negotiate, and when they don't get their way, they moan and they groan, and can pitch fits. I know they can be good listeners and easy-going, but not so much around me. They listen to my husband. They also like to "wrestle" each other, which sometimes is an excuse for seeing what great kung fu moves they can inflict on each other. Regarding the not listening and being poorly behaved, we have explained the rules are the same here as at school and same for Dad and Mom, and tried most of the usual tricks I can think of (i admit it, I've even yelled), but still, I get the whining, and all the bells and whistles of complaints. I recently asked why they give me so much gruff and not their dad, and they said, "Dad will yell." So I said, "So you are scared of his yelling? What about mine?" And the 6-year-old said, "Mom, you are sensitive." to which he explained something which sounded to me to be about my love being unconditional (so is their Dad's, but somehow, he says less and gets better results than me). Any suggestions?

You've just written a classic account of two little boys and their two good parents.  Children take the measure of each other and their parents because they focus on them with a laser-like intensity, and they behave accordingly because they know their limits.  They can explode in front of their dad, if absolutely necessary, but they save it for you because they feel safer with you than with anyone else on the planet.   Consider it a compliment.  And wear earplugs.

My husband and I are considering having a third child and would need to do it soon because of my age. We've talked to friends and family, but need an objective perspective. Both my husband and I only have one sibling each, so the two-sibling dynamic is unfamiliar to us and what the major challenges will be as parents. It seems like three is the new two. It isn't like you can go back and change your mind once the deed is done. How to evaluate the intangibles of your own situation (we can afford it; the house is big enough)? Advice?

One child is a delight.  Two children double your focus.  But three children make you efficient.  You whizz through life.  You enter the wonderful world of benign neglect.  You learn to let your babies go.  And you become the captain of a team -- a team of your own making.  Go for it, please! 

I have a 6-month-old baby who has been a great sleeper at night since he was born. He is in daycare during the week and apparently naps well while he is there. The weekends are a different story. He will not nap! He only falls asleep when held, and when he's put in his crib wakes up and screams. The lack of sleep makes him grouchy all day. Do you have any recommendations on helping him nap?

Learning to fall asleep on one's own is the first lesson of independence and it should not be denied.

Put your baby down for a nap and when he wakes up and screams, go to him within a couple of minutes and gently (and quickly) lay him down again.  Do this over and over again -- never staying with him or holding him until he falls asleep -- and he should start napping on the weekends as well as he does during the week.

You give the best advice! I've always wanted to win a lunch with you in a raffle. Have you ever considered doing that for some charity?

Sure.  I've done many lunches for charity and enjoy them.


I have a lovely 7-year-old daughter who is bright, charming, and often wins behavior awards at school. At home, however, she can often be disrespectful and immediatley complains when asked to do a simple chore. I lectured her last night on what it means to be a part of our family, and in return I got "If you want something done, do it yourself." I do think she is tired in the evenings, but that is no excuse! Since when is do it because I am your mother and I asked you to (nicely and with a please) not enough?!

One of the best ways to handle a disciplinary problem is to sit down with your child when she's calmed down and say, "What would you do if you had a little girl and she had said that to you?"  because your daughter will probably say that she should be punished and in Draconian ways. 

You also need to assume that the family is a team, and every member has certain jobs to do, every day.  Want breakfast?  Make your bed first.  Want clean clothes?  Put them away every week.  Some parents also have a Job Jar, with lots of slips in it and a child pulls out -- and does -- an extra chore each day.  No exceptions.  Chores are just as important as homework -- they're just another kind of homework.

Marguerite, where are your newer columns? I'm having a hard time finding them with the new format!

You can find my columns in Local Living, on the advice page.  Come visit!

What do you tell a 4-year old who overhears his mother telling her friends that she hates kids, isn't cut out to be a mommy, and that getting pregnant was the worst thing that ever happened to her, but she turns around all smiles and hugs when she sees him there? What kind of emotional confusion and distress would that cause for the child?

That's a heartbreaker and it happens a lot.  I'd just tell the child that her mom's just teasing -- and then I'd tell the mom that I had done that because you were afraid  her little girl would believe her.

As parents of a 10-year-old girl with ADHD, my husband and I could use advice on helping our daughter build peer relationships. She gets along well with younger children, but this does not help during school lunch, recess and class time. When we encourage play dates, she often checks out and stops playing with the poor girl we've invited, or wants to play sillier, more imaginative games that do not interest her peers. How can we help her become a better friend and more socially savvy?

ADD and ADHD kids often lag behind other kids their age, both socially and academically, sometimes a couple of years behind before they catch up.  Why not encourage plays dates with slightly younger children until she does?

Help! I'm at my wit's end with my 3-year-old daughter. She isn't fully potty-trained yet and I don't know what to do to help her. She wears pull-ups but doesn't consistently use the toilet. She's better in public and at school; she frequently tries to go when she sees a restroom, though it's only pee. She's generally good about using the toilet first thing in the morning and last thing at night, but that's the only times at home. I've read the books and tried bribing, but nothing's working. I don't know what to do, short of calling a potty consultant, and I don't want to do that.

In an earlier email today, I suggested that potty problems are often caused by allergies or by sensitivities to gluten or to casein and I recommended my favorite book of the season--What's Eating Your Child?" by Potomac, Md., nutritionist Kelly Dorfman (, I think). 

Is there something I can read about how I can shepherd a group of kids on an outing? I can herd my own two kids from here to there, but I don't think the neighbor's kids would respond to my bribing and threatening.

Treat every outing as an adventure, and plan on spending twice as much time to do half as many things.  Children stop and smell the roses and everything else they can find.

What is the normal age for children to learn to speak? How is it impacted by growing up in a bilingual family or environment? What should parents do to actively facilitate their development?

My children talked early, because we're a talkative lot, but some children don't talk until they're 2 or even later.  If you have any doubts, however, have your child evaluated by a speech-language pathologist, because early intervention is essential if there is any problem.

As for a bilinugual household -- it's great for a child, particularly in the early years because it programs circuits in the brain that make it easier for a child to learn any language when he's older.

Good morning. My husband and I have decided to start trying to have children. I'm not nervous about raising a child (I'm sure I should be!). I'm nervous about the impact raising children will have on our marriage. We have a strong marriage, but I know that children will bring a whole different dynamic to our relationship. How do we start child-proofing our marriage now? Thanks.

Have a baby and life becomes richer than you can ever imagine.  And more stressed.  Promise yourselves that you and your husband will get away one weekend every season--without the baby.  Hire a sitter; plan a swap with a friend who wants to get away, but go, because a stable marriage is the greatest gift that you can ever give to your child.  And if you can't afford it?  Borrow somebody's cabin or somebody's tent.  Go from Saturday morning until Sunday night.  You'll have a grand time, a stronger marriage even though all you'll probably talk about is your baby.

How do you get through to early teenagers that you're the parent and the boss, not them?

Ask them if they'd like to pay the mortgage.  Cook dinner every night.  Dash from work to their school to take a sick child to the doctor.

But mostly be sympathetic to them.  Understand their pain.  Tell them that you wish you could let them go to a concert on a school night with some kids you've never met but you love them so much, you'd worry, and so you'll just have to say no.  Sympathy and understanding can turn their world around.  And let you be firm and non-negotiable at the same time.

My mother had seven children, born between 1952 and 1961, and says all were toilet-trained by the age of 18 months, or 2 years at the latest. I'm the oldest, and I seem to remember the same thing. She says the thought of 3- and 4-year-olds in droopy diapers is disgusting, and I tend to agree there as well. But what to do? I say, times are different now; she asks, why? It wouldn't matter except she makes a big thing of this at family gatherings, and refuses to look after grandchildrem and great-grandchildren over 2 who might have "an accident." Can you suggest how to approach this? She's my mother and I love her dearly, but there are times I really would like to tell her to be quiet.

Your mom had kids when people obsessed about potty training and with good reason:  their children wore waterproof pants that always leaked, they didn't have a diaper service and they didn't have disposable diapers, either.  Of course, their parents trained them and as quickly as they could.  Pay no mind to your mom.  It's just her way to remember that she did a good job when she was a young mother.  And you need to remember that you're doing a good job, too.

My son, an introvert who enjoys socializing with friends but has a hard time reaching out and opening up to new people, just completed, with great grades, his first year of college. He's done a lot of volunteer work, but has yet to have a paying job. He's applied to a few places, but hasn't put any energy into the search. My spouse thinks I'm over-worrying about it and that he'll be fine, but I worry that he's not preparing himself for that leap into the world of working for a living and making himself a competitive candidate for jobs. My son gets defensive and puts up his guard if we push at all or even suggest very much so I'm trying to be very low-key. He is starting to volunteer at a local organization this summer. Do you have any suggestions? Do I need to just relax and chill out and let him work it out ["yes" - I can hear your answer already :) :) ] I'm really trying to hold back on helicoptering.

First year of college?  Chill.  He's defining himself with these volunteer jobs, finding out what he likes, what he hates and where his passion might lie.  This takes time.   And a mother who dares to let her fledgling fly from the nest.

I am a 56 year old woman with a serious heart problem and other ailments. While I hopefully won't die tomorrow, I'll probably not make it to 60. I have one sibling, a sister who's eight years younger. We never had a close relationship, as I always thought, and still think she was terribly overindulged. When we do get together, she says incredibly mean things about my weight and how "no wonder" two husbands left me, etc. However, since my illness she has visited on occasion, and it turns out she has lots of resentments as well. This has been a huge surprise, and, not that we agree, but I was able to at least share my viewpoint. I'm afraid I'm going to die with many more of these differences unresolved, and would like to prevent that if possible. On the other hand, I am not remembering her in my will, which will likely cause other resentments but I won't be around to hear those.

for peace of mind -- yours and hers -- you might want to ask her to go with you to see a social worker/therapist for five or six sessions so both of you can lay out your resentments a little quicker -- and with a referee, as it were, who can keep you on track and check your hard words before they get even harder.

Dear Ms. Kelly, I have two daughters, ages 6 and 2. Both are lovely, healthy girls but the second was born via caesarian section that somehow went wrong and resulted in their cutting through my abdominal muscles in a way that, despite intensive physical therary, won't heal properly. As a result, I am in considerable pain and can't jog, ski, garden or do other things I once enjoyed. At 32, I am getting fat and crotchety. My husband is losing interest in me sexually and my older girl says, Mama, you're just not any fun anymore. Of course I know it's not my younger daughter's fault, but her birth changed my life so completely for the worse that I sometimes can't help resenting her presence. I also realize I still have very much to be thankful for; e.g., I could be a quadriplegic or have a fatal illness, but still . . . . I'm in therapy but it doesn't seem to be helping. I'd give anything to get back my happy family life. Can you help?

You might try 6-8 sessions with an acupuncturist, because it will mellow you out psychologically, and then it should help with your pain.  And if you don't see much difference, go to an experienced pain management doctor because their treatments are often quite effective and quite different from other doctors--using a rolling xray to find the exact point of pain, for instance, and burning the nerve that is causing the pain, which will lesson the pain or even eliminate it for 6-12 months, when the nerve grows back and it has to be done again--a process called ablation.  One top recommendation in DC:  John Dombrowski, an anesthesiologist who was trained in pain management at Yale.

I know we're not the only one in this boat, but the recession is requiring us to make many sacrifices. I shop mainly at thift stores, economize on food, try to limit driving, no vacations, etc. Our children are 4 and 6 and realize things have changed, but they continue to ask for things we can no longer afford. We have Netflix, attend church socials, and try to provide other cheap but fun events, but we get worn down by it all, too. How do we keep up a happy front when we, too, are hurting inside?

Everyone is tested by something, sooner or later, and sometimes many, many times.  Just remember that you're handling this recession real well and that the better you handle one problem, the better you'll handle the next one.  And clearly, you will.

I recently had a miscarriage. We have a young son, who thankfully did not fully understand that Mommy was pregnant and what that (and the subsequent loss) meant, but he is definitely noticing that Mommy and Daddy are not quite ourselves lately (sad, shorter tempers, etc.). Any advice for how we can keep things normal for him, while we take the time to grieve and recognize our loss?

Honesty, even with a young child, makes things better.  If you tell your son why you and his dad are sad, he won't understand but he will empathize a little better and your family of three will be stronger for the telling. 

Seems now that some parents are more concerned about being friends with their children rather than being any type of disciplinarian. Do you have some tips for balancing the two roles? Thanks!

Parents really can (and should!) be both friends with their children and parents too.

To be a friend, they must be as respectful to their children as they are to their colleagues at work, their housekeeper and their sitter and anyone else who works for them, because these people can't run away from them (on the other hand, you can be rude to your boss, and take the consequences).

And children will accept their discipline if parents are good,  sympathetic listeners and treat them as intellectual equals.  This combo really does work.

Lose the pull-ups. You will have to clean up a few accidents, but it's worth it. When kids pee in their underwear it's uncomfortable. When they can pee in a pull-up, it doesn't feel so bad and there's less incentive.

Good answer!

Our son was recently evaluated by the school psychologist and it was determined that he fits the profile for Asperger's, however, the school has refused to create an individualized education program for him. I'll be moving up the chain to complain and fight for him, but I'm now looking for outside support to help me. Any suggestions?

You just have to keep walking up the food chain and demand an IEP. 

And read anything you can by tony Attwood, the big expert on Asperger's and Temple Grandin, whose further up the spectrum.

You've probably answered this question a million times, but could you give some advice on good books to review before having a sex talk with your child? Mine, like an earlier letter writer is 7. Thanks!!

Try "Sex and Sensibility" by Deborah M. Roffman.  It's a winner.

Gotta run.  Lovely hearing from you today.


In This Chat
Marguerite Kelly
Marguerite Kelly has written the syndicated column Family Almanac since 1979. She is the author of several books, including "Marguerite Kelly's Family Almanac" and "The Mother's Almanac."

Read her latest column on thank-you notes, and click here for previous columns.
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